Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pets as Theophanies

Hobbes on the beach in South Carolina.

Welcome, Pope Francis, to the U.S.A! Click here for posts that mention the pope, including one written by our dog, Hobbes.

I’ve been contemplating the depth of my loss in the death of our beloved golden Labrador retriever mix, Hobbes, this summer. Those who read my earlier posts may tire of hearing about this, but my hope has been in each one to speak to our common experiences, not just of pets, but of grief, loss, and love.

I can see very few stars in our sky over Atlanta. I have no nearby shore to walk and watch the waves rise and fall. Buildings obstruct the horizon in every direction.  There are no mountains to climb in our neighborhood.

Hobbes was my touchstone for nature. Gazing at her I saw the artistry of God. Being with her I also witnessed—in Evelyn Underhill’s words—the “homeliness” of God, God’s everydayness, familiarity, and steadfast presence.

My “congregation” is largely invisible and silent and at a distance: the readers of my blog and of my books. Facebook, e-mails, and letters intermittently give me chances to hear from you.

But Hobbes was my constant companion, particularly needed during times of stress, grief, anxiety, and loneliness. And, at the time of her death, she was the longest intimate relationship I’d had as an adult.

During her walks, she led me beside “green pastures” under the canopy of trees that cover our city, thus “restoring my soul.” If walking with God through the Garden of Eden was denied me, Hobbes was a qualified representative. Wade and I are still taking her longer morning walks.

When Calvin, Hobbes, and I lived in San Francisco, where I served as interim pastor for a little over a year, they led me “beside still waters” of nearby Lake Merced (“mercy” lake) and we played on the shores of Sunset Beach and Fort Funston.

Hobbes and I walked together “through the valley of the shadow of death” with Calvin when he was euthanized in our home there. Early the following Sunday morning, Hobbes and I witnessed a kind of “resurrection appearance” when on our walk we were joined by a collar-free silver-haired Calvin look-alike bounding in adolescent energy, as if reborn. (For more on this story, see chapter 8 of The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life.)

At Fort Funston, a doggy-friendly beach, we once encountered a baby sea lion. Hobbes’s eyes widened with wonder, and I leashed her lest she get too close. Together we watched as it returned to the sea. I walked on down the shore, not knowing that Hobbes, now unleashed, was not with me. I looked back several hundred yards later, and realized Hobbes was awaiting the sea lion’s return, gazing out to sea at the spot we had watched it go back in the waves. She had witnessed dogs go in and out of the water, and I guess she assumed the same of the sea lion.

She never fetched outside like Calvin, but she did love to play fetch and keep-away indoors with her squeaky “mousey.” And she enjoyed it when I got down on all fours, challenging me to chase her by slapping her front paws on the floor while bending toward me, grinning and eyes sparkling with glee. So she also brought me the re-creation of play.

Hobbes would join me, usually on our deck, for my morning prayers, eventually expecting a belly rub on each side. At night and during naps, she often slept on our bed, turning to face the open doorway, our protector as well.

Calvin’s eyes were always happy, but Hobbes’s eyes ranged from happy to wistful to sad, with soulful expressions, and she sometimes watched me longingly, especially in her latter days. At times I wondered if she were my mother reincarnated, so attentive she was to my presence.

Every death of a person or of a relationship reminds me of how imperfectly I have loved, and her death was no different.  In these final years of my life, I understand how imperfectly I have loved people and pets, as well as congregations and the broader church. Thus I am all the more grateful for God’s grace.

Hobbes was a theophany for me, a living, breathing, furry icon of God’s wonder, grace, and love. As a blog reader comforted me, “She was God in Hobbes-clothing.” I will miss her. And she will always be in my heart.

Click here and scroll down for other posts that mention Hobbes, who even made it into The New York Times!

P.S. Since posting this, I discovered that Pope Francis, in his June 18th encyclical on climate change, wrote, “Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” He ends the encyclical with prayers, including, “Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey toward your infinite light.” Thanks to Nicholas Kristof for his column, “A Pope for All Species.”

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

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